Coping With Grief on Father’s Day

6 minute read
Lehr is the prize-winning author of the pop culture memoir, A Boob’s Life: How America’s Obsession Shaped Me — and You, exploring the challenge of women today in navigating a new path between sexy and sacred. She is the Novel Consultant for Truby's Writers Studio, a judge for the WFWA debut novel contest, and a member of PEN, the Authors Guild, WGA, Women In Film, the ACLU, and The Women’s Leadership Council of LA

I hate Father’s Day. Not because my father died this year, making it the first without him. It was sudden, but we’d exchanged loving New Year’s greetings 10 days earlier. Despite our political differences, we were on good terms. He had enjoyed every day of his 86 years so much that we teased he inspired the show, Ted Lasso. Of course, I’ll be missing him on Father’s Day, but that’s not what fills me with dread.

I hate Father’s Day because my children’s father died by suicide, and I don’t know how to console them. Or whether it’s my place. I’d been married to their father for 20 years, but we were long divorced and rarely speaking when he ended his pain. It happened several years ago on Christmas Eve, making it impossible to forget that his favorite film was It’s A Wonderful Life. Our oldest daughter suggested that maybe he chose that day to spite us. I wonder if I should disagree, or if it would hurt her more to consider that he may not have been thinking of us at all. That his pain was too overwhelming. That she is fatherless.

I got the phone call after Christmas Eve dinner, celebrating a new home with my new husband. I had decorated extra bedrooms hoping my daughters would both visit. But mourning their father was not what I had I mind. When they arrived two days later, they didn’t need extra rooms. They shared one room, one bed, one parent.

The death certificate stated the cause of death, beyond the wound to the head, was veteran-related PTSD and depression. In addition to physical ailments, he had self-medicated for years. Since our divorce, he had leaned far too hard on one daughter and frightened the other away. His intermittent texts to me alternated between affection and fury. He was not a happy man. But he loved his children. I know he did.

Read More: What It’s Like to Live With a Veteran Who Has PTSD

The first night at my house, we hung out and hugged a lot. It was too soon to look at old scrapbooks, so we took quizzes to determine our houses at Hogwarts. The girls watched comfort movies on a laptop in bed. Lying awake in the next room, I could hear them whisper and giggle late into the night. I couldn’t hear their tears. Nor could they hear mine.

I felt so guilty. I know it’s vain and ridiculous to think I could have prevented this, but I would do anything to save them from this sadness. They had to suffer the trauma before they could roll with the grief. A grief I shared for the man who gave me these girls, these beautiful young women. His existence shaped my identity, too, as a mom.

When the girls were little, Father’s Day was fun. We colored bright banners and brought him pancakes in bed. The girls wore matching swimsuits to play with him in the pool.

He travelled a lot for his work in the film business. I’d played single mom, acting both parental parts, for much of their lives. But even after he moved out, he was there somewhere. There was always a chance for reconnection. There was always a chance for more.

When my older daughter headed home, I was tongue-tied. So I held her, hoping she could read my mind. When my younger daughter was leaving, I forced the words over the lump in my throat. “I’m so sorry.”

She turned to me on the front walk. “You’re not responsible for other people’s mental health,” she said. “How mature,”I thought. “How strong.” I wondered how long it would last..

Months later, he was in my dreams more than ever. I felt his presence—the handsome man I fell for, not the angry voice on my phone. I don’t want to judge anyone based on their worst behavior. Nor do I want his children to only remember his dark side. But if I only shared photos of the good times, would they miss him more? Would I cause them more pain?

The COVID-19 lockdown began before his small family buried him. There was no safe way for the girls to get to his final resting place halfway across the country. They had no closure. Mental health professionals claimed there was no rush to officially mourn, because there is no end to grief, especially when tainted with the trauma of a sudden death. My head knew that our children were grown; this wasn’t my responsibility. But that didn’t stop my heart from feeling heavy. I had brought them into this world and its difficulties. How could I not help?

The first Father’s Day after their father passed, I gently asked my husband to call the girls. If they couldn’t have a father, at least they could have a father figure. As they grew older, there had always been a chance their relationship with their dad would improve. But now that possibility was gone, a chair that would never be filled.

Since I hadn’t invited my husband into a parenting role during the years we dated, it was awkward. Was it too late? He called them and it was friendly. But not fatherly. I wondered if we should keep trying.

By the anniversary of their father’s death, I had researched rituals we could do over Zoom. The sticking point was the date itself. My older daughter did not want to establish Christmas Eve as a sad day. We decided to wait until his birthday in the spring.

When that time came, I brought it up to my daughters. They weren’t interested. Or at least, not interested in doing it with me. I was relieved. And kind of hurt. Did I say relieved?

The next Father’s Day, I called the girls myself. It was wonderful to hear they’d already been in touch with each other. I also realized I was mourning him, too. The best thing he had ever done was help raise these girls. I thought back to the pain they must feel, the complicated hole in their hearts.

Now, Father’s Day approaches again. I feel so helpless, watching the calendar, the days counting down. I’ll text them each a purple heart. And keep giving them all of mine.

Now, we are fatherless together.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, get help from the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988.

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